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Critical juvenile confession videotaping bill now before governor

Two bills sent up for Governor Brown’s signature on Friday could have important effects on how California investigates and prosecutes juvenile crimes. SB 260 was passed to comply with last year’s California Supreme Court holding that decades-long prison sentences for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles are unconstitutional unless they offer a meaningful opportunity of release. It would require parole hearings for all such offenders, including in homicide cases.

The second bill could be even more important. SB 569 would require law enforcement to videotape all interrogations of minors suspected in homicides. As both the California and U.S. supreme courts have stressed in recent juvenile crime rulings, juveniles are developmentally less able to control their impulses and to appreciate risks and consequences. Second, juveniles deserve the opportunity for rehabilitation.

SB 569 recognizes juveniles’ vulnerability in a crucial way: they are far more likely than adults to be coerced into giving false confessions. A growing body of research demonstrates this, including evidence from a national database of people convicted of crimes but fully exonerated later.

According to the database, 38 percent of those cleared of crimes had falsely confessed when they were under 18. That compares to 11 percent of people exonerated after confessions they made as adults were proven false.

"Juveniles are particularly vulnerable: they tend to impulsive, they tend to be more focused on short-term gratification like 'If I confess can I go home?'" commented a spokesperson for the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which is compiling that database.

SB 569 was motivated in part by a 16-year-old’s false confession to a fatal shooting of an LA man in 2011. The false confession, which included key details of the events, led prosecutors to charge him and three friends with murder. Later, convenience store video proved the four teens were miles away at the time of the shooting and could not have been involved.

While a spokesperson for the California State Sheriff’s Association claims that videotaping isn’t needed because officers work hard to validate their interviews, that doesn’t square with the facts in the 2011 case. The 16-year-old who confessed was highly intoxicated during the interrogation, and it appears the detective fed him the details of the crime. Later, he said he had confessed because he wanted to “go home to my daughter and hug her.”

If that detective had known he was being videotaped, he might have done better police work. If a videotape were available, it would be possible to analyze how the confession was obtained and whether it was credible. Don’t our young people deserve at least that much protection?

Sources: 

  • The Wall Street Journal, “False Confessions Dog Teens,” Zusha Elinson, Sept. 8, 2013
  • KRNV-DT, "Bills sent to Governor Brown, at a glance," Laura Olson, Don Thompson and Juliet Williams contributors, Associated Press, Sept. 14, 2013

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